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GreehouseTruth Blog  ::  Peer Pressure and Twisted Truths

Peer Pressure and Twisted Truths
An unfortunate blunder by the Wall Street Journal on Climate Change
Posted July 26, 2006 by Nathan Cool

"Beer can help you lose weight, according to a new report," is one headline that would grab my attention. This would make fantastic news--I could actually do 12 ounce curls and stay trim at the same time! Well, according to that headline, a "new report" says I could, so they must be right--right? Actually, no. First off, I fabricated that headline (sorry for getting your hopes up), but it's not that far off base. Anyone could write a "report"--crackpots included. But the media has no problem cherry-picking stories--credible or not--to grab your attention, pull you in, and subsequently boost their ratings. Hey, it's their job. I know that, you know that, and the media knows that. The trick though, is to realize reliability, which is something the Wall Street Journal seemingly turned a blind eye to recently, which caused an uproar from both sides of the climate change debate.

On June 26, 2006, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article written by Richard Lindzen, who I talk about in chapter 4 of my upcoming book, Is it Hot in Here?. In the recent WSJ OP-ED article, Lindzen, a well-known global warming skeptic, refutes everything that's happening as of late by condemning such things as Gore's recent crusade on climate change and the consensus study performed by Naomi Oreskes that I also discuss in chapter 5. The WSJ article requires a subscription, but is located here. Additionally, it is posted here. In her defense, Oreskes replied with her own OP-ED article in the LA Times, which you can find here.

This bickering battle of back and forth-ness is more than just another case of he-said-she-said reporting. This argument has found its way into high places, showing up as a foil in the U.S. House of Representatives recently where some lawmakers attempted to discredit global warming. Additionally, Lindzen's rebuttal against Oreskes was used by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which is run by the most famous of skeptics in the political arena: Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma (who I discuss in great detail in chapter 4 of Is it Hot in Here?). To read the harsh refutation from Inhofe's office, click here.

With the supposed findings of Lindzen refuting Oreskes consensus work, the skeptics have used this latest attack as ammo to say that there is no consensus whatsoever that global warming is real, nor is there any proof that it is an issue of concern. So, do these non-believers have it right? Or can beer really make me lose weight? In both cases, reports are telling me what seems like the truth--but is it?

Lindzen's article, although gaining much publicity recently and used as heavy artillery by Inhofe and others sitting in the trenches of the skeptics, was merely just opinion, placed in an editorial section of the WSJ. Still, when something is published in a well-respected periodical, it is often perceived as fact. Even elected officials took it as such, so don't feel bad if you thought it was accurate, honest and factual too. Opinions have a tendency to be riddled with bias, oftentimes leaving true science to take a back seat. But if you look beyond the belief and drill a little deeper into Lindzen's article, something interesting gets revealed: legitimacy, or more appropriately, the lack thereof.

Throughout Is it Hot in Here? I continually point out the importance of peer-reviewed papers, since these kinds of publications are met with the scrutiny of other professionals who can comment publicly on their content. It's also a way to ensure that supporting data is not pulled out of thin air, which anyone can do in an OP-ED (Opinions and Editorials) column. An article that is peer-reviewed (or refers to peer-reviewed work) keeps most of the eccentrics, zealots, fruitcakes and whackos at bay (this goes for both sides of the climate change debate, politicians and scientists included). Yet, the WSJ article that has gotten so much attention as of late was merely one man (albeit highly respected) touting his opinions. Lindzen though crossed a fine line in his article when he referred to what seemed like sound science, but turned out to be baseless bunkum.

The study by Oreskes that Lindzen referred to was not only peer-reviewed, but also published in the well-respected journal Science--Lindzen's WSJ article and the data that he refers to that ostensibly counters Oreskes findings was not. In fact, the data Lindzen refers to that disputes Oreskes findings was merely from a web posting, and not a peer-reviewed published scientific paper. In fact, the only "published" rebuttals to Oreskes findings are presented by the well-known skeptic Roger Pielke Jr., which was published in the journal Science here (which also contains a counter defense by Oreskes). Many others have certainly attacked Oreskes studies, but only Pielke took the high road and presented his rebuttal to the scientific community in the revered forum of peer-reviewed publication.

The profusion of confusion that I point out time and again in Is it Hot in Here? is spurned from stories like the one printed in the WSJ by Lindzen. One headline, whether credible or not, can act like a single drop of dark ink splashing lightly into a glass of crystal clear water, marring lucidity with a cloud of doubt and debate. This action serves not only to add uncertainty to scientific studies, but also is taken as evidence by those in high places, like Senator Inhofe and his team at the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works--an office that can stand in the way of progress if it deems something unsound or void of merit.

If the media were to provide their stories responsibly, solely from sources of credibility (and those refuting science did the same), then we (and our elected officials) would have a better chance of reading sound, coherent and logical facts--not fodder from ratings hungry news agencies that provide stones to be thrown from either side of the global warming battlefield. I showed near the end of chapter 5 in Is it Hot in Here?, the consensus that Orekes refers to may be quite surprising to many, but the media (in this case the Wall Street Journal) failed to show the full story. In so doing, more controversy was created, and no one came closer to finding answers to a potentially serious problem. In fact, it seemed to impede progress as lawmakers now have more issues to resolve in an ever-increasing volume of white noise and chatter.

While deliberations continue, and in the public arena of scientific peer-reviewed papers there continues to be arguments on the validity of consensus data and other issues surrounding the debate on climate change, the media will always grab that which they think you will buy. It's up to us--the readers--to be "informed" and know when the writers behind the headlines are playing the ratings game, no matter what our beliefs may be. Is it peer-reviewed? Or is it just opinion? This can make a world of difference. Everyone has an opinion, which is great, necessary, and our inalienable right. But beliefs don't cure diseases, advance technology or forecast our world's climate--science does. To help decipher sensationalism from sound news, it's incisive to look for the scientific stamp of approval: referral to a study's publication, and the credibility of the source. Hopefully elected officials like Senator Inhofe can do the same.

More information on Oreskes' consensus study, Richard Lindzen, Roger Pielke Jr., Senator Inhofe and other topics discussed in this blog can be found in my new book, Is it Hot in Here?--The simple truth about global warming. To get your copy, Click Here.